Those Above by Daniel Polansky

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Those Above kinda floored me, but not for the reasons you might expect.

I really didn’t get along with Daniel Polansky’s last series, the Low Town trilogy. I respected where he was going with it and the concept was interesting but ultimately it just wasn’t for me. It was grim, dark and cynical but all a bit introverted, focussing on a character that I just couldn’t connect with.

Well Those Above is the same. But also…different.

It is grim, dark and cynical with that same biting sense of humour and florid, dense prose style I remembered from Low Town. But now Polansky has completely expanded his focus into a more epic story, with some wildly inventive worldbuilding and tremendous main characters. The narrative style moves to third-person, utilising the much-copied Martin-esque technique of having each chapter dedicated to one exclusive point-of-view at a time. It works well for a reason and Polansky really pulls it off, starting off with four very separate storylines that all begin to overlap and converge as the book goes on. It’s very clever storytelling indeed.

The basic premise is that long ago the world came to be ruled over by dominant, seemingly immortal elf-like creatures known as Those Above, living in an enormous city known as The Roost. They live at the top of the mountain (quite literally) in what is known as the First Rung of the city, an always ominous presence that becomes less prevalent the further from the Roost we travel. Elsewhere the country of Aeleria is in a shaky alliance with The Roost and its countrymen, driven further and further to the brink by the machinations of those at the top of its Romanesque political structure. And all the while the seeds of rebellion are being laid in the Fifth Rung of the Roost where a young boy known as Thistle is pulled inadvertently into the mix with Those Above.

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This is very much epic fantasy with battles, politics and rebellion being the order of the day. As for characters there’s four major POVs: Bas, the old battle commander who is infamous for having killed one of Those Above in battle many years previous; Eudokia, the woman who sits at the head of a vast web of political power in Aeleria; Calla, the slave who serves one of Those Above directly and knows no other life; and Thistle, the young boy pulled into everything by no real fault of his own but who has known nothing else in life but theft, survival and violence. There’s also a host of memorable supporting characters – Those Above themselves steal many a scene – but this is very much the story of the aforementioned four.

Each has their moments, with Eudokia in particular dominating much of the book, having a hand in events far and wide as she grips the strings like a puppet master. She’s a strong character, reminiscent of Cersei Lannister if Cersei were twice as ruthless and half as arrogant. Indeed there are echoes of many epic fantasy staples here – with Bas being our typically gruff, take-no-nonsense army veteran who’s probably too old for this shit and Thistle, our hero who’s risen up from the gutters to face evil itself. But it rarely feels overly familiar, with Polansky displaying a deft touch in making each character believable. Each is flawed and as unlikeable at times as they are likeable, with for instance, much of Calla’s reasons for her actions only becoming clear the more we get to know her. It’s an interesting mix that allows for the book to remain intimate while progressing an epic plot that could span books and books.

And there’s my problem: it’s a bit short for such an epic story. That would be admirable if it weren’t for the fact that there is no real feeling of accomplishment – the book builds and builds each storyline to a crescendo that never really comes. Yes, there’s some excellent and exciting scenes in the latter third, but none are what I might come to expect from the ending of an epic fantasy novel. Characters get where we’d expect them to get in the first part of a much larger series, but by all accounts this is a two-parter; something that seems bizarre to me. Polansky has only just begun to set out his tools in Those Above and then it’s cut short, with only one more book to come. Suffice to say I’m curious to see where it goes in the next one as there’s an awful lot of big moments set-up here that need pay-off in the next, and the last thing I want is a rushed finale for the sake of completing the story in two books. Those Above is just too good for the second to fall flat.

And that’s just it: Those Above is excellent epic fantasy. Polansky retains much of his style from Low Town but is able to paint it across a much larger canvas with a wide and varied cast that it’s easy to become attached to. Things are coming to a head by the end and I just hope he can pull it off in part two, because if he can this will be a story to remember and recommend for years to come as an epic fantasy done just right.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

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One word: FUN.

That’s The Copper Promise in a nutshell, beyond anything else it may be. If you take anything else away from this review know that it’s ridiculously, stupendously, maniacally FUN. But beyond that it’s fresh, while maintaining lots of call-backs to classic Sword & Sorcery; it’s hilarious, in that endearingly British tongue-in-cheek wink-wink nudge-nudge kinda way that never goes over the top; and it’s progressive, with a male/female duo at the forefront who are rogueish, charming and nothing more than best of friends.

There’s Sebastian, the down-on-his-luck knight in shining armour who has all the things you’d expect in a fantasy knight: courage, honour and strength, but has been persecuted and cast out of his order due to his sexuality. And there’s Wydrin – the rogueish madman (cough) who’s always raring for a fight, willing to jump into a barrel of dragons at a moment’s notice and generally found otherwise drunk/fighting/sharpening weapons. (delete as appropriate) The difference here is that Wydrin is a mad-woman, and oh what a character she is. There’s not a scene she doesn’t steal, a heart she doesn’t squeeze (perhaps literally and certainly figuratively) or a fight she doesn’t start. She’s a fantastic creation and sits firmly at the centre of this adventure, playing off every other character fantastically – above all else Sebastian. The final main character here is the young Lord Frith, but to say too much about him would be spoiling the party.

The book is basically a series of interconnected D&D-style adventures, each of which star our leads as they are thrust into the gaping mouth of danger – or in Wydrin’s case, jump head first – with the first involving a trip into a dungeon-like Citadel to recover the powers of the long forgotten mages, where they unleash something a lot worse that will dog them throughout the rest of their adventures. It makes for a page-turning novel that essentially has four mini-narrative threads connected mainly by events that occur in the first. It’s a clever device that makes each of the four adventures feel complete in-and-of themselves, and yet allowing an overarching arc to connect them together.

Everything about The Copper Promise screams fun and Fantasy – there’s dragons, magic, pirates, swords, magic armour, demons, gods, monsters, battles and lots of mead. Everything’s cosy and familiar, but the character dynamics are fresh and exciting, bringing in a modern mindset to stories that might otherwise have easily slotted into the 80s myriad of D&D adventures. Williams’ writing style is quick-paced and tongue-in-cheek, keeping a firm hold on the rapid pace but always remaining self-aware, allowing the personalities of her characters to shine through.

There’s not much negative to say about The Copper Promise. If you don’t like episodic adventures it might not be for you, and if you want a fantasy world that’s entirely original in its makeup you might feel a bit stuck in the past. But really it’s a superb bit of pulpy modern Sword & Sorcery that you just…don’t see enough of anymore. And with the second one, The Iron Ghost, out this month, there’s no better time to get to know Sebastian the Ynnsmouth Knight and The Copper Cat of Crosshaven.

Control Point by Myke Cole

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Control Point is set in an alternate version of the modern world where people are ‘coming up Latent’ – suddenly developing magical powers. The ability to manipulate fire, ice, water, the air, weather, the earth and a lot more are manifesting in everyone from your average guy on the street to foreign diplomats and politicians. And, in the case of Oscar Britton, soldiers. The story follows Britton as he develops the incredibly rare power of Portamancy – the ability to create razor-thin gateways to anywhere he can imagine; a power that the US military see as a major coup. But as unauthorised people with Latent powers – ‘Selfers’ – are usually hunted down for purposes unknown by the US government, Oscar goes on the run and it’s only a matter of time before they catch up to him.

I originally read the first third or so of Control Point a couple of years ago and found it quite difficult to get into. Britton is an unusual character as he has a constant internal monologue that questions everything and he seems to change his mind with every other thought. The opening set-piece, involving an attack on a school that’s got Selfers hiding inside, is really good and an exciting hook. But when Oscar goes on the run and we spend around 150 pages with him and his stressed-to-the-max thoughts it gets a little tedious despite the fast pace. So I left it there. But with all the praise Myke’s books have gotten since Control Point (which seems to be widely considered his weakest) I’ve been dying to get around to them. So this week I decided that I’d just go for it and try it again, and frustratingly (in hindsight) I was probably only a chapter away from where it gets reeeeeally good.

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Things pick up when Oscar is brought to SOC (I forget the full name) – basically magical school for the US military. It’s all very training montage with some cliché bits and pieces in there but man alive is it fun. The whole system of magic is so well integrated into the modern military setting that it feels fresh and innovative, despite there not actually being anything particularly new with regards the powers. Peter V. Brett was right when he described it as X-men meets Black Hawk Down.

Another reason things really improve in the latter half of the book involve the supporting cast introduced at the SOC. The Full Metal Jacket-esque Chief Warrant Officer Fitzy is page-chewingly horrific, stealing many scenes, and Britton’s team (Shadow Coven) is made up of some very well realised characters. And there’s Scylla, who is clearly being set up for later books as someone to be feared. Massively. All this perhaps highlights the main issue with Control Point: Oscar Britton himself. He’s a bit reactionary – until the end – and yet as already stated, has a strange internal monologue that constantly questions everything. As a military man it’s strange that he would be so constantly poor at following orders or at questioning his betters. He is probably supposed to come over as someone who overthinks everything and is a bit indecisive, but really he seems a bit childish.

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All in all though on this go around I really enjoyed Control Point. Soundbite time (though surely someone’s already beaten me to it): If Harry Potter grew up and joined the US military you’d get something like this. It’s a lot of fun, filled with great action sequences and by all accounts the books gets better and better. I’m excited.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

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Books like The Goblin Emperor come around maybe once in a decade. Books that can go against the grain of their genre’s direction and be wildly successful, hopefully spurring on a new trend that adds new dimensions to the genre it sits in. With The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison has written the antidote to all that gritty ‘grimdark’ that’s been doing the rounds for the last ten years or so, with a story that does not entirely dismiss their thematic tropes but twists them into a newer, more hopeful direction.

The premise for the story is simple: Maia is the son of the emperor, but not the heir. He is the son of the emperor’s third wife, and through no fault of his own has spent most of his life relegated to an estate far from the capital with his jealous and cynical cousin Setheris. As the book begins Maia is told that the emperor and all of his sons – Maia’s elder brothers – have perished in an airship crash, and lo and behold Maia is the new emperor. The book is essentially Maia’s story as he navigates his way around an unfamiliar court filled with ambitious and traitorous family members, politicians and nobles – and just maybe his father’s airship accident wasn’t so accidental after all.

The Goblin Emperor is that oh-so-wondrous of beasts: a simple story well told. Maia is our one and only point-of-view, and Addison makes the reader feel as if his problems were our own. The connection between Maia and the reader is intense and his instant and constant likeability is a big factor in what makes the whole book work so well. Maia is completely out of his depth in his court, and through the use of a complex hierarchy and formal language style unique to the book the reader feels as much of an outsider as he does. But Maia is so consistent and unwilling to give up that he gives this book a really refreshing feel that I’ve not seen in fantasy in a long time. It’s hopeful. Yes, there’s darkness there and it hints at a harsh world outside of the court (as well as some hinted at xenophobia due to Maia’s goblin heritage) but because of Maia it never loses that sense of a light at the end of the tunnel.

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Of course a good book needs a good supporting cast and honestly The Goblin Emperor has one of the best I’ve read bar none. Whether it is Maia’s secretary Csevet (who will be any reader’s favourite), his nohecharei (bodyguards) Beshelar and Cala, his personal helpers (or edocharei), or even the more sinister characters like his cousin Setheris or Lord Chancellor Chavar, they all feel so incredibly well realised that it’s a joy to read. The core cast is kept relatively small, with the setting also contained almost exclusively to the elvish court, allowing for an intimacy that’s rare in epic fantasy nowadays. And it IS epic fantasy – this is just a perspective we’ve never had before.

The plot is a constant driving force, with Maia’s struggles always at the forefront, and when something big occurs it really is impossible to put down. Some might find the formal language (occasional thees and thous, but it’s rare and does work for a good reason) and naming conventions a bit difficult to get round (there is a guide at the back of the book, but I didn’t read it until I got there and found I’d managed fine by the end) and if court politics and little actual sword-on-sword action sounds like it might bore you then maybe it’s not the book for you.

But for me it was an absolute revelation. Quite genuinely this book is one of the best I have ever read. It will be reread many times and has become, for me, an instant favourite. As much as I read it is rare nowadays to find a book so hard to put down and so impossible to put down for the last time. Turning that last page was heartbreaking, knowing it’s finished and that I’ve come to the end of Maia’s story. But I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that before long I’ll pick The Goblin Emperor up again, if only for a little hope.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story about family. It’s difficult to discuss for fear of spoilers, and indeed, some reviewers have opted to ‘spoil’ the big reveal that – as the back of the book states is around page 77 – but I’m going to try and write my way around it. Rosemary is our narrator for this story, and she tells it in a style I’ve never come across before. We start in the middle, go back to the beginning, the middle again, the beginning and then the end which returns to the beginning again. Bits and pieces are revealed about Rosemary’s life out of order, allowing the reader to form opinions before they have all the information. It’s all very clever and extremely well executed. But really the story is about Rosemary’s family.

When Rosemary was 5 years old her sister, Fern, left the family. It’s unclear initially whether she went missing or was sent away but it’s an event that has had an impact on Rosemary’s life ever since. As Fern was the same age as Rosemary it’s an immediate hook that draws the reader in. Rosemary/Fowler quickly tells us that several years later her older brother, Lowell, also left under mysterious and foreboding circumstances. Rosemary’s parents are aloof and seen through the lens of both the older Rosemary telling us this story and a younger Rosemary, through the memories older Rosemary has of those times. The family drama is all realistically developed and often quite sinister as things begin to loom. There’s never a doubt that something’s coming. A big reveal.

And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s not even something enormously shocking. Once it comes you’ll go ‘huh, that makes sense’ and realise there’s still well over three quarters of the book left. Everything before page 77 is informed in hindsight by the reveal, but everything after is still the same story. It’s still all about Rosemary and her family. What I’m trying to say is that despite this enormous twist being touted as such a big deal, it’s not a book that lives and dies on the strength of how it pulls the wool over the eyes of the reader. Because it doesn’t. There’s a very good reason we don’t know about it beforehand, and Rosemary/Fowler lets us know why. It’s not just a gimmick.

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The characters in the book are fantastic. As Rosemary reveals everything out of order, sometimes even going back to earlier scenes once we have more information, the characters are layered in a very unusual way. Whether Rosemary’s friend Harlowe, who initially comes across as a borderline psychotic prima donna but becomes a lot more, or her brother Lowell who stays very much in the background of the story for a lot of the book until he becomes just as vital as Rosemary herself. They’re all realistic and feel as though they exist both within Rosemary’s narrative – skewed as it is by her unique point of view – and out of it.

This is a very difficult book to discuss with anyone who hasn’t read it, as my jumbled and confused ‘review’ shows. But trust me when I say it is worthy of your time. A gripping and very unusual (while also very deliberately…normal) family drama it is both something different and something familiar. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is thought-provoking, funny, tragic and heartwarming.

(Just don’t go for the audiobook.)